It takes a lot of guts for a leader to tell his or her most important constituents that they’re wrong. Yet that’s exactly what Netflix CEO Reed Hastings did last month in a letter to shareholders. And if you are struggling to recruit and retain adult students, Hastings’s recent ruminations contain some important wisdom for you, too.

What Can an Entertainment CEO Teach Higher Ed Marketers?

If you haven’t heard the buzz around the letter yet, it’s worth a read. At a time when major rivals like Amazon, Disney, and HBO are ramping up efforts to dethrone the world’s most popular streaming service, Hastings argues that Netflix’s real competition is actually from the video game Fortnight, whose popularity is spreading faster than the Birdbox monsters. Hastings correctly understands that his biggest challenge isn’t outdoing other studios.  “I think of it as us winning time away – entertainment time – from other activities,” Hastings said in his letter. “So instead of doing Xbox and Fortnite or YouTube or HBO or a long list, we want to win and provide a better experience (and) incredible content.”

It might sound like he’s trying to deflect attention away from his traditional competitors, but Hastings is actually articulating his challenge perfectly. And if you’re tasked with marketing for community colleges or promoting professional master’s degrees in 2019, your task is remarkably similar. Your challenge is not trying to outspend some for-profit competitor on flashy marketing, it’s convincing people to invest their limited time and attention in your programs when there are so many other demands and options open to them.

Yes, Your Task Has Gotten Harder

If it feels like this was easier just a few years ago, you’re absolutely correct. The national-level data is clear. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC),  in 2017 community colleges saw a 6.4% decline adult students, defined as being at least 24 years old, over the previous year. On the other end of the degree spectrum, enrollments for professional master’s programs like the MBA are also slumping.

What are these missing students doing instead? They’re not just binging TV and playing video games—they’re working. The civilian labor force participation rate is growing again after crashing during the recession as is the number of hours the average worker is putting in each week. That’s a good thing! But in addition to taking away a big motivation that drove adult learners back to education in the past, improved employment prospects are now also draining away the time they have available to return to school even part-time.

And that’s just the time spent working. Commute times are increasing. As Hastings points out, the list of possible distractions keeps growing, even without considering family and social obligations. It was easier to convince adult learners that they need a degree when they were under- or unemployed, but now you must convince them to invest their precious time and money on it when they have a job that is consuming more and more of their waking hours.

Forget the Magic Bullet — You Need a Strategic Solution

So what’s the answer? At VisionPoint, we firmly believe there is no magic-bullet solution to any institution’s recruitment challenges. Instead, we work with each client to find the right mix of strategies and integrated marketing solutions to reach prospective students and break through the marketing noise. This means:

  • Taking the time to understand the specific barriers that are keeping your best potential prospects from applying. This means analyzing all the relevant data you can get your hands on and shaking up your approach to audience research. It beats driving your marketing efforts blindfolded.
  • Learning how to present your offerings in a way that’s most relevant to your prospects. Too many colleges and universities, for example, believe that simply having online options or saying they’re convenient is sufficient for prospective students to connect the dots and trust that a program is compatible with their busy lives. Our experience tells us that you have to be more creative and use a mix of marketing channels to actively demonstrate that compatibility to them.
  • Focusing on the experience. Take a page from Hastings’s playbook for Netflix and focus on how you can market the student experience at your institution in ways that will meet and exceed their expectations.

We know none of this is easy. That’s why we’re going to talk a lot this year about recapturing adult students. Some of our clients in charge of marketing community colleges and professional master’s programs are bucking the trends of declining adult student enrollments because they’ve figured out how to make it happen. And one a big component of their success is grabbing the attention of these students and convincing them that higher ed is still a worthwhile place to invest their limited time.

Not sure how you’re going to compete for your prospects’ time and attention this year? Let’s talk and see what options are out there.